Author Kirk Wallace Johnson’s prose glitters like the tropical bird feathers he describes in this story of a 20-year-old American flautist’s theft of some $250,000 worth of bird skins. One of the summer’s most talked about books in the US, the tale is rich with detail and colour. Johnson embarks,Author Kirk Wallace Johnson’s prose glitters like the tropical bird feathers he describes in this story of a 20-year-old American flautist’s theft of some $250,000 worth of bird skins. One of the summer’s most talked about books in the US, the tale is rich with detail and colour. Johnson embarks on a high-speed tour of Victorian fashions, the secretive world of salmon-fly-tying and environmental degradation-all in pursuit of a charismatic and unusually wily villain. THE FEATHER THIEF: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the CenturyThe rare feathers belong to the “skins”-dead birds with their innards removed but feathers intact-stored in the Natural History Museum of Tring, a small town in Hertfordshire, about 44 miles northwest of London. The skins are rare for three reasons. They belong to endangered species of birds. A number of those that were stolen belonged to birds that had been caught, collected and tagged from South America and the Malay Archipelago at great personal peril by 19th century biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, whose ideas closely paralleled those of Darwin’s. But the third reason is the most extraordinary. The beautiful plumage of these dead birds is as precious as rare gems for an international group of artisans who create ornamental fishing lures. Called “flies”, these tiny, jewel-like creations are built around fish hooks and require hours of painstaking effort behind a magnifying glass to complete. The origin of the craft is the sport of fly-fishing, but creating lures with no function other than their own beauty is what captivated an exceptionally gifted young flautist called Edwin Rist. In 1999, when he was only 11 and expecting to pursue a career in music, he happened to watch an instructional video on television about fly-tying. He became entranced. By 14, he was being hailed as a master of the craft. It would become an obsession which, combined with his ambitions as a world-class flute player, warped his moral compass. The reason he stole the precious bird skins was to sell them and buy himself an exceptionally fine flute.advertisementIn a book that recalls Susan Orlean’s blockbuster The Orchid Thief, Johnson presents this complex story like a skilled angler. The brightly coloured lure is Rist, while we are the salmon, kept on the hook by the fine, taut line of the author’s desire to expose the truth behind the tale. Not just the “how” of the theft but also why we should care about it.Accompanying the text is an album of photographs. Amongst them we see the handsome young criminal, an array of the tiny enticing fishing “flies” and a selection of the birds whose gorgeous plumage leads humans astray.